Posts Tagged ‘Federal Association Order of Malta’

For What Should We Be Thankful?

My friend Joe’s trip to the airport the other day was the stuff of nightmares.  He was headed to Detroit by way of Newark, and it was not pretty.  On the way to the airport his car blew out two tires, and the tire shop which he eventually found charged him $600 for replacements.

From the tire shop he continued to the airport by taxi, but by then he had a little cushion because the flight had been delayed thirty minutes.  Finally on the plane and out on the runway, however, one passenger got sick, and it was back to the terminal to let that guy off.  Then the plane taxied out again, only to develop engine problems.  Back to the terminal they went, yet again, and this time everyone got off.  Then at 3:30 pm they cancelled his 9:50 am flight.  Have a nice day.

That was just the beginning of Joe’s travails that day, but this portion of his tale of woe is enough to make a point.  Life does indeed have its major and minor catastrophes, but it’s important always to maintain a sense of perspective, and there’s no better time for that than Thanksgiving Day.

I’m always amazed to meet people who have no sense of how blessed they are.  All too often their daily thanks tend to be of the sort that goes like this:  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  In short, we reference the lowest common denominator of inconvenience or human suffering, and then are grateful that our lives are not worse than they are.  We might even give thanks that life is good because it’s not terrible.  It’s true that we can be grateful for all that, but isn’t there just a little bit more to our lives?  Sure it could be worse, but is there nothing to excite us on Thanksgiving other than a feast, a day away from the routine, and a surfeit of televised sport?  Of course there is, and happily most of us know that.

This Thanksgiving I will pass up the chance to give thanks for great wealth, power or influence.  These have always eluded my grasp anyway, and to be honest I’ve never spent the bulk of my energy trying to acquire them.  Instead I will rely on the tried and true items for which I tend to be grateful on a fairly regular basis.

First off, I give thanks for life and for parents who cared enough to provide me a home and share their values.  I give thanks for friends, who really are a gift from God and aren’t something you can buy at the store.  I give thanks for enough material goods to keep me going, but not so many that they take over my life and distort my vision of myself and reality.  And then I’ll give thanks for the faith which others have shared so generously with me.  Faith is a pretty intangible thing, but it’s been the key ingredient that’s given me direction when I’ve been lost at sea.  It’s provided the reason to go on in those moments when life can seem pointless.

This year I’ll also give thanks for those simple words of encouragement that have made all the difference in the world to me, since childhood.  Generous people scarcely realize the good they can do when they offer a kind word or point out the talent they see in others.  Often they never know what such a simple gesture can accomplish.  But it happens, and it happens far more than you might imagine.

This Thanksgiving one last-minute addition will make the list, and it’s this:  it’s the awareness that I can and ought to do better, and that I still have some time to do it.

On the day that Joe didn’t go to Detroit, I was at the airport grousing about how it was taking forever for the shuttle to get from the terminal to the car rental facility.  Then I was cranky because people couldn’t get off the bus fast enough.  And then there was the long line at the counter, filled with people who seemed never to have rented a car before.  Could life possibly get any worse than this?  Two hours later I read Joe’s email and realized it could.

On Thanksgiving I’m not going spend time being grateful that my travel experience was not as horrible as Joe’s.  Rather, I plan to be grateful for the ability to put things into perspective.  Besides, I should know better than to pray for a seamless travel experience in life when there are other things of far greater import.

So this Thanksgiving I’ll express gratitude for friends and faith, but I’ll also give thanks for the good sense that lets me rank these things first in my life.  On any given day, they are even more important than an on-time departure and arrival.


+On November 17th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.

+On November 17th and 18th I attended meetings of the Trustees of Saint John’s Univesity.  Unfortunately, they were cut short by an impending storm, which materialized on the morning of the 18th.  It was our first serious freeze of the winter, and we got all of four inches of snow.

+Beginning on the evening of November 18th, and continuing through to the 19th and 20th, I gave a retreat to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, gathered at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House, located north of Dallas, TX.

+The topmost photo in today’s post is a glimpse into the garden greenhouse.  There a selection of squash, raised in our garden, prepare for storage in the abbey’s cellars.  My friend Larry Haeg happened to take this beautiful photo, and I am grateful for his willingness to let me make use of such a lovely fall portrait.

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photoJust Do It — But Not Just Yet

A couple of years ago I read a great piece on procrastination in The Week (14 January 2011, to be precise). It was a reprint of an article from The New Yorker; and, for whatever reason, the editors neglected to mention the name of the author. The reflection was fascinating, in part because I have the nagging suspicion that quite a lot of us contend with procrastination, myself included. So two years of mulling over the idea is about the right amount of time before putting pen to paper. And just because I’ve waited this long doesn’t mean I’ve been putting it off.

What stirred me to action was a fresh brush with the ill effects of procrastination in my own life. For upwards of five years and more I’ve complained about how cold my room can be in the winter, and the last few days have been particularly chilly. Now a reasonable person would ask if I had heat in my room, and if so, suggest that I turn it on. But a reasonable person wouldn’t know that my radiator has only two settings: “off” and “full-blast tropical.” I can choose between 62 degrees, which is just about right for sleeping, but my fingers turn blue at the desk. Or I can turn on the heat and know that it will shoot up to a sauna-like 85. I also know that it won’t go off until mid-August, no matter what I do to the thermostat. So to my mind it’s just easier to leave it off and complain about my lot in life. What could be better than to suffer, but not in silence?

Andries Pietersz van Souwen (1549/50-1624), Knight of Malta

Andries Pietersz van Souwen (1549/50-1624), Knight of Malta

Last week I drove with one of my confreres into Saint Cloud, to run some errands. It was a really really cold day (really), and I was going on about how cold my room was, and how I was thinking about getting a space heater. In fact, so serious was I, that I had been considering it for four years.

By now this litany had become a ritual for me, but my confrere showed neither interest nor sympathy. Actually, he must have questioned my sanity. He had just returned from graduate school two weeks earlier, and he too suffered in a frosty room. As we drove by one of those big-box stores, he stopped me in mid-sentence and suggested we go in and get heaters for our rooms. I was dumb-founded. “What? Now? But it’s way too cold today. Let me think about this some more.” Well, he would have none of that, and in we went.

photoIn the aftermath of his decisive action, all of my excuses for not getting a space heater melted away. There was, of course, a huge selection to choose from, and I mumbled that I wasn’t sure which one would be best for my room. “Here”, he said calmly yet firmly. “This is the one you want. Get it.” Then he grabbed the box from the shelf and tossed it into the cart.

My next fear was that they’d be expensive. They weren’t. I had also dreaded the instruction manual, and I feared having to master a forty-eight page booklet in Spanish, French, English and Mandarin. I have no patience for instructions.

If these were normal times, I would have hauled the crate home and set it aside for a week or two, just to get used to it. But these were not normal times. It really was cold, and I’d prepared myself for this day for four years — even if I never thought the day would actually come. Then I threw caution to the wind, ripped open the container, and gingerly eased the heater out of its nest of styrofoam and cardboard. Next, I ignored the instruction manual, plugged it in, and pressed the start button. It worked, and within an hour I had a pleasantly toasty room. It had all been so simple, simple enough for even someone like me.

Saint John the Baptist and the shield of Saint John.

Saint John the Baptist and the shield of Saint John.

This episode has caused me to rethink my tendency to procrastinate, because there are valuable lessons to be learned here. First off, we all pay a heavy price for this sort of behavior; because it often comes back to haunt us. Try and count up all the apologies we’ve had to issue for not doing things on time. Now consider for a minute how much fun it would be to finish everything ahead of schedule — all the time. Imagine the shock on people’s faces. That alone is worth a major change in behavior.

Next we should total up the amount of inconvenience and needless suffering we’ve endured because we push things off. Sure, for a while we can convince ourselves that prudence is the way to go. But more often than not we’re simply avoiding the difficult or the inevitable. Given that, sitting in a cold room seems rather pointless, especially if I could solve the problem in an instant. For such suffering there is no glory, and there’s no one to blame but me.

photoThe last take-away is that it’s never too cold to go out and buy a space heater. In fact, the coldest day is the best day to do it. Who wants to be seen carrying a big heater out of the store in July? People assume you’re too late for last winter, or mindlessly paranoid about next winter. No, by toting it out to the car on the coldest day of the year, I have crafted a new public image. In the face of terrific adversity, I was the one who took action. It was I who was undaunted by the cold, and I did the right — and the sensible — thing.  And I will be forever grateful that my confrere made me do it.

Hendrik van der Veere, Knight of the Holy Sepulchre. 1551.

Hendrik van der Veere, Knight of the Holy Sepulchre. 1551.

Various notes

+Last August I had the opportunity to visit the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, The Netherlands; and the pictures in today’s post come from there. The museum houses sacred art gathered from regional churches, but the buildings themselves are the star attraction for me. In the 16th and 17th centuries Saint Catharine’s served as a monastery/regional headquarters for the Order of Saint John, aka the Knights of Malta. The complex remains largely intact, and the galleries occupy spaces that once served as the dormitory, dining room, and administrative offices of the Order of Malta in Holland. The church remains a parish church today, and all the buildings are in an excellent state of preservation. It is well worth the visit to this lovely oasis, and it is only a short train-ride out of Amsterdam.

+Amish Mafia revisted: I received some wonderful email on my post on the Amish Mafia, and many readers who had seen snippets of the show were equally appalled. One reader mentioned a colony of Amish snow-birds in southwest Florida, which was a real surprise to me. A few brought to my attention several other freak shows, including one on the Hutterites. Frankly, I had not realized that communities of Hutterites still existed. Many of the founders of the Anabaptist groups came out of the Benedictine monasteries, which explains the communal/monastic organization of these groups.

photo+On January 25-27 I gave a three-day retreat to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta. The retreat took place in Jacksonville, FL, and the weather was “not so bad”, as we might say in the dialect of Minnesota.

+On the afternoon of January 23rd the power on campus at Saint John’s went off, exactly twenty-two hours after I had plugged in my new space heater. There’s nothing more useless than an electrical appliance during a power outage. I still can’t believe I let myself get rushed into buying that thing.

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